Peter Fortin's Winding Way to Success

June 9, 2023

Peter Fortin is about to finish up at NOVA and transfer with a full-ride scholarship to Williams College in Massachusetts. Things are looking up for him now, but he wasn’t always feeling so optimistic about life. 

Growing up in Arlington, the youngest of three kids and the only boy of a single mom, he says he struggled in school and battled depression and anxiety from the time he was young. He gave up on school in around sixth grade, doing the bare minimum until he could eventually drop out. He did get his GED the year he dropped out of school, though. “I think my apathy toward school and refusal to apply myself was a disappointment to both my family and my teachers, who all thought I could achieve whatever I wanted if I would just put in the effort. At the very least, I was disappointed in myself for not being able to pull it together.” 

Peter Fortin

He did give college the ‘old college try’ and followed his friends to NOVA in 2015. He loved to play video games and thought maybe software engineering would be his direction. 

Unfortunately, college circa 2015 didn’t take. He says he didn’t adjust well to being back in school and failed his first semester. “It really came down to my mental health. Even though I was finally doing the right thing, I still felt ashamed that it took me so long to get here. Eventually, I lost all motivation to attend my classes, and I let my grades turn into Fs.” Pushing into his second semester hoping to make up the difference wasn’t enough, either, and he eventually lost his financial aid and had to drop out. 

But he was always curious; always thinking. 

“Even though I didn’t show it much in my schoolwork, I’ve always been interested in abstract questions. I like puzzles. Not physical ones like jigsaws, but mental ones that require creative thinking and reasoning to solve. I developed an immense interest over the years in questions at the intersection of philosophy, mathematics, theoretical computer science and linguistics. All these fields ask questions about the relationships between logic, language, meaning and truth, and those are the puzzles I love to think about. Going back to school to study these subjects was the only thing I wanted to do, but it took six years for me to finally get to a point where I felt like I could enroll again. I knew that this would be my last chance, so it was necessary that I waited until I was ready.” 

After returning to NOVA in 2021, he switched his major from computer science to mathematics, which, it turned out wasn’t that big of a jump in terms of required courses. 

“I knew that I would get more out of my time at NOVA by completing the full calculus sequence and differential equations rather than taking classes on data structures and operating systems. At the same time, I’m glad that NOVA’s curriculum offers STEM students the opportunity to take humanities classes as part of their degree requirements. The work I am most proud of over the past two years are the papers I’ve written. I’ve even used one of them as my writing sample for my transfer applications!” 

Peter gives a shout out to a variety of professors he encountered at NOVA. People who worked to build him up and infuse him with a confidence that he was able to pick up and run with. 

“I am extremely lucky to have learned from so many fantastic professors after returning to NOVA, and there are a few who I want to thank in particular: Prof. Kimberly Whitehouse gave me so many opportunities during our Introduction to Computer Science class to help other students who were struggling with the material. She helped me crystallize my real passion for teaching. In College Composition, Prof. Kenna Day instilled a new sense of confidence by encouraging me to lead classroom discussions about rhetoric, logic and argumentation, all of which I am passionate about. Her unwavering belief that a boundless capacity for compassion and empathy is much more important than being the smartest person in the room. During our African-American Literature class, Prof. Bridget Pool pushed me harder than anyone else ever has to improve my writing skills. Being kept to that high standard made me actively seek out methods to improve my work and completely changed how I look at the writing process. Prof. Blessilda Raposa-Tibung encouraged me to develop my problem-solving skills beyond what was required to merely pass calculus II. Professor Zeinab Bandpey has one of the most inspiring personal stories, and I’m deeply grateful for her sharing that story with me, allowing me to share my story with her and the endless encouragement she gave me to pursue my academic career, both in and out of our calculus III class.” 

“I will forever be grateful for the confidence these professors had in me as a student, and their beliefs that my engagement and participation positively contributed to the learning environment. They could all be teaching at the most prestigious schools in the world, and I am humbled that they chose to teach at NOVA and work with students like me who need a little help to get to where they need to be. I also thank my advisor Melissa Bautista for all her help. I could not have gotten through these last two years without her. 

After dropping out of high school, and then dropping out of NOVA, Peter Fortin has now found himself. He wants to teach and do for others what his professors have done for him.  

“My goal is to become a professor so I can both teach and do research at the intersection of mathematics and philosophy. Despite my earlier abysmal performance in school, I always felt like I’d somehow end up as a teacher.” 

And if he wasn’t sure about teaching before, his activities at NOVA have solidified that goal. Professor Pool recommended him for a position in the Alexandria Campus tutoring center, where he helps students with both writing and math. He says that is among the highlights of his time at NOVA. 

While at NOVA, Peter also took full advantage of the wealth of resources available to him. One of those was the Transfer Scholar Network, a group of community colleges that partner with top four-year schools to help high-achieving students navigate the transfer process. “TSN is really about networking and helping community college students communicate with the four-year institutions. Each week during college application season, I received emails with invitations to virtual seminars on the transfer process from schools like Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Yale. I was able to communicate directly with the deans of admission for these schools. I had tons of questions about my applications because I was applying with a GED and an incomplete high school transcript, so being able to talk directly to admissions deans and ask questions relieved a lot of stress. 

“Virginia has a myriad of prestigious universities, and the guaranteed admission agreements are a fantastic way for NOVA students to transition to great four-year schools. I believe the Transfer Scholar Network is a perfect complement to GAA for high-achieving students who want to look at prestigious universities outside of Virginia, but who might not know where to start.” 

So, this fall, Peter will be headed for Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Mass., to complete a double major in math and philosophy.  

“I thought, given my past academic performance, I would be extremely lucky to be accepted anywhere. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be accepted at one of the top schools in the country, let alone with a full-ride scholarship! Until recently, private liberal arts colleges weren’t really on my radar. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized their unique approach to education is exactly what I want out of my time in undergrad. I am thrilled to be transferring to the best of them all!” 

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